Ministers urged to make ‘intense preparation’ for winter coronavirus surge amid warning of 120,000 deaths
The report’s authors said ministers could ‘act now to change things for the better’ in the NHS. (PA)
Ministers must make “intense preparation” over the next two months to get the NHS ready for a winter spike of Covid-19 cases “which might be greater than that seen in the spring”, scientific advisers are warning.
A government-commissioned report by the Academy of Medical Sciences says the health service should brace for a peak in hospital admissions in January to February next year “of a similar magnitude” to the first wave earlier this year.
And they estimate that there could be 119,000 hospital deaths between September 2020 and June 2021 — “over double the number that occured during the first wave”.
The report, commissioned by the UK’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, says pressure in the health service is typically at its most intense in the winter, with bed occupancy regularly topping 95% in recent years.
And it warns that a “large resurgence” of Covid-19 either nationally or locally — with the virus reproduction rate rising to 1.7 — would see a sharp peak in hospital admissions early next year.
Its modelling estimates that such a spike, “coinciding with a period of peak demand on the NHS”, could lead to tens of thousands of deaths in hospitals.
The report says the NHS will already be grappling with a backlog of non-coronavirus-related care after this year’s suspension of routine interventions, a move it says “is likely to result in an increased number of poorly-managed chronic conditions or undiagnosed diseases”.
Hospitals may also be hit by a possible flu epidemic, the researchers say, with the 2017/18 influenza season alone accounting for 17,000 excess respiratory deaths.
“A generalised increase in respiratory infections over the winter could also rapidly overwhelm test and trace capacity,” the report warns.
'EXTENSIVE PUBLIC INFORMATION' PUSH
In a bid to help the NHS prepare for a second spike, the academy calls on ministers to develop “effective policies” to ensure the public limits the spread of Covid-19, including social distancing, wearing face coverings, practicing regular hand-washing and ensuring homes are heated and ventilated.
Ministers are also urged to use “financial” incentives to ensure people comply with restrictions, and tackle “structural and socio-economic barriers” to following the guidance.
The Government should, it says, launch “an extensive public information campaign” in the autumn to try to minimise transmission, and mount a drive to tackle poor quality housing and “high levels of overcrowding” to curb coronavirus transmission.
The report’s co-author Prof Dame Anne Johnson said: "Faced with these potential challenges, and after an already tough year, it would be easy to feel hopeless and powerless.
"But this report shows that we can act now to change things for the better."
Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “A second Covid wave alongside the usual winter pressures could prove catastrophic for the NHS and care services unless action is taken now by ministers."
Responding to the report, a government spokesperson said: "We remain vigilant and the government will ensure the necessary resources are in place to avoid a second peak that would overwhelm our NHS."